Dear Dr. Coulson.
I am in a desperate need of your advice. I have two children; one is 4.5 years old and the other will be 2 in three weeks. The boys are completely different. The older one was and still is more of a calm child and a great sleeper. The younger one has never slept through the night, and now not without waking up between 12 and 4 and screaming ‘no’, kicking, waving his hands trying to push me or my husband out of bed (he refuses to sleep alone) but yet wanting us reasonably close to him. It takes forever to console him and we have to try different things, such as calming essential oils or finally shifting his attention to something else, which may or may not work. It will sometimes take up to half an hour or longer.
Several months ago he started having these ‘crazy spells’ where he screams ‘no’, stomps his feet and is visibly upset during the day. This happens usually when he is not getting what he wants at the exact moment or when he is being reprimanded, etc. When he is playing with other children at day care twice a week, the teachers say that he is the happiest child ever, always with a great smile on his face, and a great cheerful disposition, and the first one to fall asleep. He doesn’t sleep well for me at all during the day. The only way I get him to take a nap is by driving him around.
As you can see, we are at our wits end, not knowing what to do. We are constantly sleep deprived and cranky as a result of it. It is basically affecting every aspect of our life. Other than that, his disposition is very cheerful, my friends describe him as the happiest child they have ever seen, with a constant smile on his face. It’s because they are not witnessing his hysteria attacks. By the way, my son is a runner, he is running a lot during the day, almost preferring it to walking.
Your expert advice would be greatly appreciated.
Dr Justin responds:
Experts are divided on this issue. Sleep challenges in toddlers are common but diverse, and there is no definitive study to point us in the ‘right’ direction in helping our children sleep better. One thing everyone does agree on is that sleep deprivation is terribly frustrating.
The majority of experts in ‘sleep training’ promote a pretty simple approach (which is one that does not sit well with me). They recommend:
- Create a consistent, kind routine
- Tell your child to go to sleep
- Leave the room
- If they try to escape, hold the door closed (not all recommend this, but some do)
- Delay your return to them for longer periods each time
- Eventually they’ll understand that bed time means bed time, and they’ll stay in bed.
While the first point is universally accepted, my feelings are that the remainder of this approach ignores the ‘why’ behind a child’s bedtime separation anxiety. Rather than understanding any unmet needs a child is experiencing, the parent demands compliance with an agenda that is all about the parent’s convenience and that fails to consider the needs of the child.
What could be upsetting a child so much that he won’t go to sleep? There may be stress or fear, or some kind of anxiety about separation. Perhaps the child is feeling ill. Maybe it is hunger, thirst, or he may simply not be tired. The approach set out above discounts any of these legitimate needs of the child and places the parental agenda on a pedestal as the supreme consideration in whether a child should or should not go to sleep right now.
I suggest a different approach.
First, remember that your little boy is only two years old. In primitive cultures and in traditional contexts, parents co-slept with their young children for several years. Your son is biologically wired to be close to you, and will continue to want that feeling for a little while yet – perhaps as much as a year or two. By forcing him away from you, it is possible that he will feel detached. His model of the world and relationships may be impacted and he could feel unworthy to be close to you. Keep him close while he needs it. He will eventually grow out of it.
Second, create a consistent, kind routine. This should include a regular bed time, and might also include a bath, songs, stories, hugs, and so on. Ideally he will go to sleep where you want him to wake up, but this is not always possible at this age.
Third, be flexible in your personal sleeping arrangements for a little while so he can sleep where he is comfortable.
When he wakes in the night, remember he is only two. He may be worked up, disoriented, exhausted, and more. There are no easy ways to snap him out of his challenging behaviour. Instead patience and comfort will calm him fastest. (If you’ve ever tried to go to sleep when you’re scared, stressed, or mad you’ll know a calm influence is much more helpful than an angry, pressured influence.)
Finally, the crazy spells he has during the day are most likely a part of his growing up. From around the age of two years through until about four or five, children can become oppositional, defiant, and angry when they don’t get their own way. And the behaviour is typically reserved especially for parents. Again, a patient, understanding approach will be most successful in working through these challenges. This is not to suggest you should be permissive. Children need rules and boundaries. But being authoritarian, controlling, and angry will be ineffective too. Instead, remember that his challenging behaviour is typically the result of an unmet need, and work to show him you understand. (Even if you can’t or won’t meet that need, he needs to know you understand it.)
In terms of sleep, my personal philosophy has always been “so long as they’re out of the bed my wife and I share by the time they’re dating”. So far they’ve all made it with at least a decade to spare. This is a trying time for you. It is exhausting and frustrating. But with patience, flexibility, and understanding, your son will sleep independently, overcome his tantrums, and eventually let you get back to sleep and sanity.